As artists we constantly strive for truth and originality in our work but to do so requires many incidental pieces of knowledge, some experiential or practical and some theoretical or constructive.
The best painters use the knowledge they have obtained as an outline or guidepost for the efforts, many times adding their own unique perspective to age old fundamentals.
We must all beware of the trap knowledge brings which is a formulaic approach to painting. The phrase formula painter gets bandied about a lot, especially when someone hits their stride stylistically and makes some subject matter their own.
Many times it is used to marginalize the success of that painter as if the mere fact of their success has tainted the purity of the work. The painter has sold out in the eyes of their contemporaries.
In my mind it is not about success or having “made it” whatever that means. To me formula is less than a best attempt, where an artist will rely on convention and ability to get them through, but not breaking a sweat with the effort put forward. This is not tied to style or subject; many non-objective painters fall into this trap and in my opinion they do it more often than representational painters do.
I don’t really mind the exploration of a theme as Monet did with his haystacks or paintings of Rouen Cathedral where his focus was not so much the subject itself but the exploration of light and atmosphere and how that affects our perception some familiar thing. In these cases the motif is the anchor for the viewer and the different canvases challenge our experiences.
Some painters like John Fabian Carlson or Fritz Thaulow explored an area of the country over and over again but each time, the experience was captured with a fresh eye and keen observational skills. The unique experience of that time and place is what the painter was after.
The line is crossed though when nothing is being added to the original idea. There is no transition from one canvas to the next, except the movement of the pieces of the design. It becomes an endless assembly line of the familiar and the banal. The artist explores nothing but the tolerance of their audience to suffer through the same thing for as long as the artist can sell canvases.
A great artist keeps their fire and passion for their work, and while being human allows them some leeway in difficult times of their careers; overall, they approach each painting as a student, seeking knowledge and truth from the places they know and love. This is what makes great art.
Images for this article, first five, Claude Monet, next two John Fabian Carlson, last three Fritz Thaulow. All copyrights are wth the families or institutions that hold the paintings.